Lothlórien Leaves Fallen: On a Changing Fandom and HASA Closing
For those who have not heard, HASA is closing at the end of the year. The SWG is coming up on ten years, which means that I've been involved in fandom to varying extents for longer than that, and as I look around, I see the landscape is changing. The idea of HASA being gone is like looking west to find one of the mountains missing. Maybe you went weeks without even noticing that mountain, but it was there and it has always been there, and the empty sky it once filled is not an improvement.
Within the past few years, we've seen changes great and small in the Tolkien fandom. The MEFAs ended. LotRFanfiction stands a shadow of its former self. Several smaller archives--the Last Ship and Quills and Ink come to mind--closed their doors. Activity on Yahoo! Groups has all but ceased, and LiveJournal is no longer the hub of activity that it once was.
Of course there have been good things too. Faerie opened its doors. Tolkien fandom activity on Tumblr and AO3 have increased. And many Tolkien groups that have been active for years remain active. But the landscape has changed nonetheless.
I think what stings for me the most, as an owner of one of those archives still holding strong, is that so much of what we're losing are things that we built. Yes, the Tolkien fandom, like all fandoms, has always relied on general archives and platforms built and maintained by other people, like Yahoo! Groups, LiveJournal, and Fanfiction.net. I do not mean to in any way diminish the value of groups that centered themselves on those platforms. I run projects myself that use them. But we also built a lot of our own things. We built archives and events and awards that answered to no one but their volunteers and the community they served. That meant that the sky--or often our tech skills--was the limit. It also meant that while other fandoms quickly ebbed and receded as their source texts grew and then fell in popularity, we in the Tolkien fandom stuck out flag in the earth and stated, "No. We will always be relevant, and there will always be a place for people who love Middle-earth to carry on its legacy." In fact, as over the years I've talked with people and read others' thoughts on why Tolkien fandom is different from other fandoms, our relative lack of reliance on general sites, fannish or otherwise, versus sites that we build and manage ourselves is almost always mentioned as a major difference between us and FandomTM.
So why the change? I think a major reason is better technology, which probably sounds weird, since one would assume that better technology would make it easier to set up a site of your own. In fact, it seems to have made it easier to use existing sites and tools to set something up, and speaking from experience, when that is a viable option, it is perhaps hard to justify the weeks and months that go into building a site from scratch. Then there is, of course, the fact that major sites like LiveJournal or AO3 have the resources to respond to rapid changes in how tech is used, i.e., HASA's problems with malicious attacks. It is simply beyond the resources of one or a few people to respond to that, especially when you know full well that three years down the road, what you just spent hundreds of hours on is now obsolete and you're facing the same kind of problem again.
Yet when we had fewer options, I feel like we also had to learn more on our own. I know I am not the only person who remembers when you had to know basic HTML in order to format posts on LiveJournal. It was that way on many archives as well. I remember learning BBCode because the Open Scrolls Archive used BBCode rather than HTML. That didn't seem unusual or onerous (it was a lot like HTML anyway). Likewise, I learned wiki markup to contribute on fannish wikis; again, the idea that one had to study and learn a bit before using a site to its fullest potential wasn't odd to me. It wasn't a huge step to begin learning HTML to make webpages, then CSS. I learned Photoshop in order to make graphics for my site. Lots of people did. I wonder how many people who joined the Tolkien fandom in the last year have had to learn HTML; I wonder how many new members of fandom could build a webpage from scratch. Many of us who have been around a while can, and of course, that empowers you to build your own spaces rather than use what already exists.
But then, of course, you reach the point where what is available on a site like Tumblr or AO3 is so much cooler than what you have the ability to do in your own space. I periodically get emails from people asking, "Why can't we ...?" about the SWG or MPTT and often have to ask that that is simply beyond my technical know-how. I used to say I dreamed in HTML and CSS, and I can fumble my way through open-source software like eFiction but I'm emphatically not a coder or developer, and as the demise of first the MEFAs and now HASA--both for technical reasons--illustrate, I'm increasingly doubtful that my long-term goal to become proficient in PHP/MySQL is even really that wise; it feels a bit like opening Pandora's box.
Then, of course, there is the fact that running a site takes a lot of work. Your life changes (it usually becomes busier), but the responsibilities of running a site don't change that much. They are always there, always take time, and usually are pretty tedious. I remember well the thought process that led to the generation of the SWG almost ten years ago. I had insomnia. I was thinking about Tolkien fandom and Silmarillion fiction especially. I thought, "We don't have much for just Silmarillion authors. I should build something." (Silmfics existed but was a moderated discussion list, and I envisioned something more writing-oriented: initially a writers' workshop, but eventually a fiction archive.) I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn't even a person yet known in the fandom, although that would shortly change. One day, someone suggested the SWG setting up a website. I said, "Sounds good." My friend loaned me a book on HTML (which I still haven't given back!) and I bought a book on CSS. I started studying. I bought a domain name and downloaded eFiction, and suddenly, I was a website owner. I wasn't really qualified to be one, but that didn't seem to matter then. I figured things out. I flew along by the seat of my pants a lot. I leaned on Rhapsody a lot, who knew and knows so much more than I do. Most of all, I had a lot of love for what I was doing and the time to do it in.
When I took on that commitment, I didn't think of what life would be like in three, five, ten years. It's easy to imagine that it will be more or less the same: the same amount of time available to commit, the same technology, the same fandom. The same enthusiasm. Of course, none of those things come true. Time constricts, technology becomes more elaborate, new fans enter with new expectations, and priorities shift. Now I often get emails along the lines of, "This is outdated on the site," and I have to respond (shamefully) that I know and that I just haven't had time, but it's on my list.
All of this to say that it is not surprising that the things we built are beginning to fall. But it is sad to me nonetheless because they were ours, and I do not want our fandom to become just another section or another tag on a massive site where our creativity becomes subject to the whims of forces much larger than we are (often advertisers or the site's image, i.e., ability to make a profit).
I want to conclude by speaking on HASA itself. HASA was the first Tolkien fanfic site that I joined. I wasn't a dedicated member because I was building and then managing the SWG, and that took most of my time. But it was always a site that I admired and a site that I looked to when building the SWG as worthy in many regards of emulation. I enjoyed my time there, received thoughtful feedback on my work, and met people who became good friends (some of whom are still friends today).
The owner and admins of HASA gave such an immense gift to the Tolkien fandom. Fanlore says that HASA was founded in 2002. Twelve years is a lot of years to give. I often think that the best way to put into perspective what it means to be a site admin is to think that when everyone else is writing and drawing and squeeing and sharing, these are the people who skip that because they're doing the tedious work behind the scenes that makes all that possible. (There is a reason that site admins tend not to be very prolific authors themselves.) Very often, that work is thankless and overlooked for the sad fact of human nature that we often don't notice something until it breaks or goes wrong. I do not know all that went into making my years on HASA a joy and I know I didn't stop often enough to thank the people who made that possible, but before it's too late, and I want to give thanks to them now for all that they gave to the fandom. The mountain to the west will be missed.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!